Arousal Control in Sport
Summary and Keywords
Sport and stress are intertwined. Muhammad Ali once said, “I always felt pressure before a big fight, because what was happening was real.” As this quote attests, sport is real, unscripted, with the potential for psychological, and often physical, harm. The response to stress, commonly described as “flight or fight,” is an evolutionary adaptation to dangerous situations. It guides behavior and readies a person to respond, to fight, or flee. However, the stress response is not evoked solely in situations of mortal danger; it occurs in response to any situation with the potential for physical or psychological harm, such as sport. For example, the possibility of missing out on a life-changing gold-medal win in an Olympic Games, or losing an important competition that you were expected to win.
Stress in sport is often illustrated by the archetypal image of an athlete choking; snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But stress can also help athletes perform well. Stress also plays a role in behavior away from the competition arena, influencing interactions with significant others, motivation and performance in training, and how athletes experience and manage injury and retirement from sport. In sport stress, the psychophysiological responses to stress are not just abstract theoretical concepts removed from the real world; they reflect the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of athletes.
It is important to understand the arousal response to stress in sport. Both theory and research suggest a connection between arousal and athletic performance. Recent approaches propose ideas about how the nature of arousal may differ depending on whether the athlete feels positively (as a challenge) or negatively (as a threat) about the stressor. The approach to seeing stress as a challenge supports a series of strategies that can be used to help control arousal in sport.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The following quote from ex-soccer player David Beckham, about taking a penalty in the 2002 World Cup, illustrates the strong physiological arousal observed in response to stress: “It was an important moment for me, the nation and the team . . . but I’ve never felt pressure like that in a game before. I just couldn’t breathe.” The fact that the stress of competitive sport performance manifests in physical symptoms is due to the interaction between how a person thinks and the workings of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Key elements of a person’s response to stress are changes in the ANS, which controls functions of the body that are geared to survival and connect with the involuntary muscles, such as lungs, stomach, and kidneys (Lovallo, 2004). The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system, which refers to all the nerves outside of the central nervous system (i.e., the brain and spinal cord). The peripheral nervous system comprises the somatic system (connection with the voluntary muscles) and the ANS. Both the ANS and the somatic system are influenced by the central nervous system.
The ANS can further be subdivided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. The sympathetic branch is responsible for mobilizing the body ready for action, reflected in the classic flight or fight response, which is associated with the emotions of anger and fear (Canon, 1932). Because this response is geared toward sustaining an attack or fleeing, it is a short-term response and places a strain on the body, which is why prolonged anger and fear carry the potential for harm (Lazarus, 1999). The parasympathetic nervous system is concerned with calming, or reducing the arousal. The activity of the sympathetic nervous system is generally all or nothing, that is, the entire body is affected (Lovallo, 2004).
The sympathetic nervous system exerts its influence through hormonal activity. Stimulation of the adrenal medulla (center of the adrenal gland) results in secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine). The pituitary gland also releases adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), which that stimulates the adrenal cortex (outer part of the adrenal gland) to release corticosteroids, and the hormone most often considered in response to stress is cortisol. Cortisol mobilizes energy resources to provide “fuel” for the body and thus plays a crucial role in metabolism, alongside other important functions, including anti-inflammatory effects, inhibiting immune functioning, and impacting the cardiovascular system, for example, through inducing vasoconstriction (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004).
Early Models of Arousal and Sport Performance
There are two early major approaches to explaining the arousal-performance relationship that have been applied to sport: drive theory and the inverted U-hypothesis.
Drive theory was outlined by Hull (1943) and then later modified by Spence (1956); it is sometimes referred to as the Hull-Spence theory of behavior (Spence, 1956). Drive theory was originally proposed to explain the relationship between complex tasks and arousal, although it has also been applied to explain the relationship between simple tasks (equivalent to complex tasks that are well learned) and arousal. Performance (P) is a multiplicative function of drive state (D) and habit strength (H):
In brief, for well-learned tasks, there is a positive linear relationship between arousal and performance. Drive theory has been used to explain behavior in stressful settings, perhaps most notably by Zajonc (1965), who adopted drive theory to explain social facilitation. The facilitating effects of arousal occur because heightened arousal increases the likelihood of an athlete’s dominant response tendency (habit strength). If the dominant (well-learned) response is the most appropriate, as is likely for skilled performers, then performance improves. However, the literature does not support for the central tenet of drive theory—that heightened arousal (drive state) is associated with improved performance (Martens, 1971). In addition, Martens suggested that it is very difficult to determine habit hierarchies. To explain, it is difficult to know when a task becomes so well learned that arousal will always have a positive influence on performance. Perhaps more damagingly, there are many examples of excessive arousal disrupting performance, so the face validity of the theory does not appear to hold. For example, even highly skilled performers can point to examples in which excessive arousal disrupted performance (e.g., a world class tennis player double faulting on a crucial point).
Furthermore, Oxendine (1984) did suggest that a linear relationship may exist for gross motor activities. Thus, drive theory may hold for tasks for which power is required but co-ordination is not needed. Anecdotally, this would make sense, but determining when an activity relies solely on power is difficult. For example, even tasks like scrummaging in rugby or weightlifting require coordination. In short, there is limited evidence for drive theory in sport (Zaichkowsky & Baltzell, 2001).
In the inverted-U hypothesis performance is best at a moderate level of arousal. Both low and high levels of arousal are associated with decrements in performance. The original work done on the inverted-U hypothesis related to the strength of stimulus and habit-formation (learning) in mice (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). Mice learned most quickly which chamber of two to enter when the punishment for choosing the wrong chamber was an electric shock of moderate intensity. This finding was supported by later work with rats (Broadhurst, 1957). From these rodent-based studies, it is difficult to see how the inverted-U hypothesis has become such a commonly used explanation for the arousal-performance link in humans. Perhaps the idea that moderate levels of arousal are suitable for performance has an intuitive appeal. This hypothesis was supported by some research in attention. For example, under high physiological arousal, the attention field narrows (cf. Easterbrook, 1959), which has a positive effect on performance if it blocks out unimportant distractions but a negative effect if the narrowing is so great that task-relevant cues are missed.
Some research evidence shows that anxiety (often associated with high arousal) relates to performance in the manner of an inverted U shape. Specifically, the best performances of 145 high school basketball players occurred under moderate levels of anxiety (Klavora, 1979), and the performance of university female basketball players was higher following medium levels of anxiety (Sonstroem & Bernardo, 1982). However, despite this support, the inverted-U hypothesis has been met with some criticism (cf. Neiss, 1988; Raglin, 1992; Zaichkowsky & Baltzell, 2001):
• This hypothesis describes, but does not explain, the relationship between arousal and performance.
• The symmetrical U shape is not a realistic representation of a competitive sport situation. Performance tends to deteriorate much more dramatically with high arousal.
• Arousal itself is multidimensional and accordingly, the inverted-U hypothesis may be simplistic.
While the inverted-U hypothesis has some intuitive appeal, research has begun exploring how cognitive and physiological aspects of arousal interact to affect performance and contribute to the experience of athletes under stress. Much of this research has considered the role of arousal as part of the anxiety response.
Contemporary Approaches to Arousal and Sport Performance
Anxiety is characterized by feelings of apprehension and tension along with activation or arousal of the autonomic nervous system (ANS; Spielberger, 1966). Two elements of anxiety outlined in this definition, cognitive and physical, explain why more recent approaches to understanding arousal have considered both elements in their approaches.
Multidimensional Anxiety Theory (MAT)
One of the most influential theories in sport research is the multidimensional theory of competitive state anxiety (MAT; Martens, Burton, Vealey, Bump, & Smith, 1990).
In MAT cognitive anxiety refers to “fear of failure and negative expectations about performance” while somatic anxiety refers to “individuals’ perceptions of their physiological state” (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996; p. 142). Adopting a multidimensional approach to the study of competitive anxiety means that an individual could be high in cognitive anxiety and low in somatic anxiety, or vice versa, high in both or low in both. Furthermore, this approach implies that cognitive and somatic anxiety have separate antecedents and different temporal patterning in the lead up to competition (Parfitt, Jones, & Hardy, 1990) and that they are affected differently by different anxiety control techniques (Burton, 1990) and crucially have different relationships with performance.
The conceptualization of competitive anxiety as a multidimensional construct meant that new measurement tools had to be developed. Martens and colleagues developed the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2) and published it alongside the MAT (Martens, Burton, Vealey, Bump, & Smith, 1990). The CSAI-2 was originally developed to assess cognitive and somatic anxiety, but an additional cognitive factor (self-confidence) emerged during the development. According to MAT, cognitive anxiety has a negative linear relationship, self-confidence a positive linear relationship, and somatic anxiety an inverted-U relationship with performance. Because the CSAI-2 and MAT were published simultaneously, the theory and the measurement tool are linked. Therefore, limitations in one may affect the other, and it is difficult to determine whether unsupportive research findings are a result of limitations in the theory, the measuring tool, or both.
Some research supports the central tenets of MAT. For example, a sample of swimmers, showed a curvilinear trend, similar to the inverted U, between somatic anxiety and performance. They demonstrated a negative linear trend between cognitive anxiety and performance and a positive relationship between self-confidence and performance (Burton, 1988). However, some conflicting evidence has also emerged. For example, in a sample of pistol shooters, a curvilinear trend, similar to the inverted U, between somatic anxiety and performance was observed, but no significant relationship between cognitive anxiety and performance was detected, and there was a negative relationship between self-confidence and performance (Gould, Petlichkoff, Simons, & Vevera, 1987; Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996). Collectively, empirical support for these predictions has been equivocal, with support primarily for the positive association between self-confidence and performance (e.g., Craft, Magyar, Becker, & Feltz, 2003; Woodman & Hardy, 2001). While the relationship between self-confidence and performance was consistent across sports in their meta-analysis, Craft et al. found that both cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety seem more influential in individual sports (e.g., tennis, badminton), and data from the highest level of athlete (national competition level or higher) showed a positive relationship between cognitive anxiety and performance and somatic anxiety and performance. This finding suggests that for this more elite group, anxiety may be helpful for performance, and thus, it indirectly supports the drive theory.
In short, it is probably correct to say that the relationship between anxiety and performance is more complex than outlined in MAT. While there is support for some of MAT’s predications (e.g., somatic anxiety does appear to have a curvilinear relationship with performance), this relationship does not appear to be consistent across all groups of athletes (e.g., national level athletes). Perhaps support for MAT has been equivocal because much of it has utilized the CSAI-2 (Martens et al., 1990) and the construct validity of the CSAI-2 has been questioned (see Kerr, 1997; Lane et al., 1999). For example, when Jones and Uphill (2004) asked university athletes to imagine completing the CSAI-2 as if they were competing in the most important competition of the season as if they were either highly anxious (n = 83) or highly excited (n = 87), both the cognitive and somatic anxiety subscales from the excited group were substantially higher than the norms reported by Martens et al. (1990). In short, individuals scored highly on the cognitive and somatic anxiety intensity subscales of the CSAI-2 when experiencing an emotion (i.e., excitement) other than anxiety.
Because of concerns that the CSAI-2 does not adequately capture the competitive anxiety experience of performers, several researchers advocated using a modified version of the CSAI-2 that incorporated a directional subscale. The CSAI-2(d) measures not only the intensity of symptoms (as assessed by the original CSAI-2) but also considers the perception of these symptoms (e.g., Jones & Swain, 1992; Jones, 1995). This directional subscale provides a measure of whether the symptoms reported on the cognitive and somatic anxiety subscales are perceived as being facilitative or debilitative for performance. This modification of the CSAI-2 allowed researchers to test the control model of debilitative and facilitative competitive state anxiety (Jones, 1995), which proposes that athletes with a positive belief in their ability to cope, and in goal attainment, will interpret anxiety symptoms as facilitative (helpful), whereas those with negative expectancies will interpret their symptoms as debilitative (unhelpful) for performance (Jones, 1995). Both elite and successful competitors have reported more facilitative perceptions of anxiety symptoms in comparison to nonelite and unsuccessful competitors, respectively, when no differences in anxiety intensity levels were present (Jones, Swain, & Hardy, 1993; Jones & Swain, 1995). Research has generally supported the tenets of Jones’s theory and that athletes with a positive perception of anxiety symptoms perform better (see Cumming & Ramsey, 2008 for a review). However, the conceptual worth of this research has been questioned, and a positive perception of symptoms may simply represent the absence of any real levels of perceived anxiety (Lundqvist, Kentta, & Raglin, 2010). That is, in a sample of 84 Swedish athletes, Lundqvist et al. found that most of the anxiety items identified as facilitative for performance were rated at an intensity of “not at all,” and the absence of any perceived anxiety for these items is probably the main reason the athletes in this sample rated them as facilitative to performance.
One further limitation of MAT is that it considers the relationship between cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety, and performance in a series of two-dimensional relationships (Hardy, 1990). But athletes are rarely cognitive anxious in the absence of somatic anxiety and vice versa, so how cognitive anxiety relates to performance may be influenced by somatic anxiety and how somatic anxiety relates to performance may be influenced by cognitive anxiety. The interaction between psychological and physiological arousal is discussed in more detail in the next two approaches outlined, reversal theory and catastrophe theory.
In reversal theory (Apter, 1989) the experience of arousal is different depending on the metamotivational states (or frames of mind) that an individual is in at any given time. There are four pairs of metamotivational states: telic-paratelic; conformist-negativistic; mastery-sympathy; autic-alloic. When one of each pair is active, the other is inactive. Thus, if a person is in a conformist state, they cannot be in a negativistic state. A person can reverse between opposite states for a number of reasons, including, for example, frustration from not achieving a goal, an external event, or satiation, which is being in the same metamotivational state for an extended period of time (Blaydon, Lindner, & Kerr, 2000). Although there are four pairs of metamotivational states, typically one or more of the states will be salient (Frey, 1999), reflecting a person’s motives at a particular time. For example, when the telic state is most salient, a person is goal oriented and has a preference for low levels of arousal.
Metamotivational states may be related to participation (e.g., Lindner & Kerr, 2000), change at different stages of competition (Males, Kerr, & Gerkovich, 1998), and perceptual and cognitive responses to exercise (Thatcher, Kuroda, Thatcher, & Legrand, 2010), and they may help explain athletes’ emotional responses to injury (Thatcher, Kerr, Amies, & Day, 2007). Reversal theory is supported in sport settings; the application of metamotivational states can explain the range of emotions experienced in sport, and these relate to performance and participation (see Hudson, Males, & Kerr, 2016, for a review). However, Hudson et al. noted that additional robust research is needed, particularly for evidence to demonstrate that reversals can be controlled or that motivational states can be reliably induced at will in the context of sport and exercise. Another potential limitation of this approach is that interpretation of arousal does not seem to relate to some high-intensity emotions, such as happiness, an emotion frequently experienced in sport settings.
The catastrophe theory (Fazey & Hardy, 1988; Hardy, 1990) considers how cognitive anxiety and physiological arousal (not somatic anxiety, which is a perception of physiological state) interact to influence performance. The relationship between cognitive anxiety and performance is different depending on the level of physiological arousal and the relationship between physiological arousal and performance is different depending on the level of cognitive anxiety. Simply, according to catastrophe theory, it is not possible to know how cognitive anxiety relates to performance unless the level of physiological arousal is known and vice versa.
The left-hand side of the three-dimensional relationship where physiological arousal is low shows that increases in cognitive anxiety will help performance, whereas the opposite occurs when physiological arousal is high (the right-hand side). To best explain catastrophe, it is easiest to consider the back and front faces of the three-dimensional relationship as well as the relationship between physiological arousal and performance, in which cognitive anxiety acts as a splitting function. When an individual is experiencing low levels of cognitive anxiety, the relationship between physiological arousal and performance is in the shape of a gentle inverted U. When cognitive anxiety is high, increases in physiological arousal facilitate performance up to an optimum level, but increases past the optimum level result in a severe performance decrement (i.e., a catastrophe). To regain composure and optimum performance, a large reduction in physiological arousal is necessary. Only when cognitive anxiety is high do increases in physiological arousal above the optimum lead to sharp catastrophic decreases in performance.
Hysteresis describes the distinct relationship between physiological arousal and performance under conditions of high cognitive anxiety depending on whether physiological arousal is increasing or decreasing. Hysteresis has been demonstrated in eight crown green bowlers (Hardy, Parfitt, & Pates, 1994) who completed a bowling task under conditions of low cognitive anxiety, where their individual data would not be compared, and high cognitive anxiety where they were told their scores would be compared to elite crown green bowlers. Physiological arousal was manipulated using physical exercise, and half the participants did the task with physiological arousal increasing and half with physiological arousal decreasing. While there was evidence of a substantial reduction in performance under conditions of high cognitive anxiety as physiological arousal was increasing, there was no evidence of a substantial decrease in physiological arousal necessary before the bowlers “flipped” back to the upper performance surface of the model. There is other support for the central tenets of catastrophe theory (e.g., Edwards & Hardy, 1996; Hardy, Woodman, & Carrington, 2004). Although catastrophe theory has been criticized as being too complex to test and therefore of dubious value to sport psychologists (Gill, 1994), elements of the theory have been tested, and as Hardy, Jones, and Gould (1996) point out, complexity is not a reason for rejecting a theory. Indeed, more contemporary theories have not only considered the interaction between psychological variables and physiological states but also that subtle differences in physiological responses may indicate positive or negative approaches to stress.
Challenge and Threat States
Another approach that outlines how a person may respond positively and negatively under stress is the biopsychosocial (BPS) model of challenge and threat (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000). Challenge and threat are two distinct psychophysiological responses to stressors that occur in motivated performance situations (like sport) where success is important and there are perceived (via demand appraisals) dangers to esteem, uncertainty, and a requirement for effort (see Blascovich, Mendes, Vanman, & Dickerson, 2011; Seery, 2011). Building on the BPS model and related work (Obrist, 1981; Dienstbier, 1989) the theory of challenge and threat states in athletes (TCTSA; Jones et al., 2009) and integrative framework of stress, attention, and visuomotor performance (Vine, Moore, & Wilson, 2016) offer more recent transactional approaches specific to athletic performance by proposing a framework for psychological, emotional, physiological, and behavioral (attentional) reactions in sport. In the BPS model, the TCTSA, and Vines’ framework, importance is placed on whether an individual experiences a challenge state or a threat state, rather than the magnitude of arousal evinced. Both a challenge and a threat state involve augmented arousal, but in a challenge state this physiological reaction is adaptive, and in a threat state it is maladaptive. In sum, the TCTSA builds on previous theory (Obrist, 1981; Dienstbier, 1989; Blascovich & Mendes, 2000) and offers an integrative, interdisciplinary approach to the understanding of the human stress response in competitive situations,
While the aforementioned challenge and threat approaches place emphasis on the cardiovascular components of challenge and threat states, Vine et al. offer a more detailed account of the attentional consequences of challenge and threat in visually guided motor skills, whereas Jones et al. offer a more detailed account of the cognitive antecedents and performance consequences of challenge and threat.
Specifically in the TCTSA (Jones et al., 2009), a challenge state is experienced when sufficient, or nearly sufficient, resources to meet the demands of a situation are perceived, whereas a threat state is experienced when insufficient resources to meet the demands of a situation are perceived. Demand appraisals comprise perceptions of danger, uncertainty, and required effort in a situation, while resource appraisals comprise three interrelated constructs: self-efficacy, perceptions of control, and goal orientation. Jones et al. (2009) suggest that high levels of self-efficacy, perceived control, and focus on approach goals, represent sufficient resources to cope in a motivated performance situation and are therefore indicative of a challenge state. Conversely, low levels of self-efficacy, perceived control, and focus on avoidance goals, represent insufficient resources to cope in a motivated performance situation and are indicative of a threat state. Physiologically, a challenge state is accompanied by increased sympathetic adrenomedullary (SAM) activity and catecholamine release (i.e., epinephrine and norepinephrine), which is proposed to promote efficient energy use through increased blood flow to the brain and muscles, higher blood glucose levels (fuel for the nervous system), and an increase in free fatty acids that can be used by muscles as fuel (e.g., Dienstbier, 1989). A challenge state is fast acting and represents the efficient mobilization of energy for action.
A threat state is also marked by increased SAM activity, but it is also characterized by increased pituitary adrenocortical (PAC) activity accompanied by cortisol release, which tempers the positive effects of SAM activity. Therefore, the mobilization of energy is less efficient than in a challenge state as blood flow (and therefore glucose) to the brain and muscles is restricted (e.g., Dienstbier, 1989). A threat state is considered a “distress system” that is maladaptive for performance situations. Indeed, growing research indicates that a challenge state is associated with better cognitive and motor performance than a threat state (e.g., Blascovich, Seery, Mugridge, Norris, & Weisbuch, 2004; Moore, Vine, Wilson, & Freeman, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012) and maintained health (cf. O’Donovan et al., 2012). For example, in one study researchers examined the relationship between CV reactivity and the performance of 42 elite male cricketers in a pressured batting test (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013). The batting test required the cricketers to score 36 runs from 30 deliveries and athletes were allocated runs by a national coach. After baseline CV recording, athletes were informed that their performances would be compared to those of all other cricketers and would be seen by all coaching staff, and that their scores would be considered when future team selection was made. The athletes’ CV reactivity to being informed about the batting test was recorded as it is with the netball athletes. Challenge CV reactivity was related to superior performance compared to threat CV reactivity. That is, athletes who exhibited challenge CV reactivity recorded a better score in the batting test than athletes who exhibited threat CV reactivity. In another study (Moore, Vine, Wilson, & Freeman, 2012), researchers assessed the cognitive appraisals, emotions (anxiety), CV reactivity (CO and TPR), visual gaze, putting kinematics, muscle activity, and golf putting performance of novice golfers. Participants in a challenge condition, manipulated using instructional sets, exhibited greater challenge CV reactivity and challenge appraisals than participants in a threat condition. Furthermore, participants who exhibited challenge CV reactivity reported more favorable emotions; displayed more effective visual gaze, putting kinematics, and muscle activity; and performed more accurately in the golf putting task than participants who exhibited threat CV reactivity.
Although research investigating the impact of the resource appraisals on challenge and threat states is in its fledgling stage (e.g., Turner et al., 2014), the theoretical background for the three resource appraisals is strong and stems from these models: the BPS model (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000), the model of adaptive approaches to competition (Skinner & Brewer, 2004), and the model of debilitative and facilitative competitive state anxiety (Jones, 1995). Therefore, strategies that help athletes to increase their resource appraisals to meet or exceed perceived demands, can promote a challenge state and are therefore valuable (Turner & Barker, 2014). In other words, rather than using arousal attenuation or activation strategies, which can be useful at times, athletes should primarily focus on increasing their self-efficacy, perceived control, and approach goals.
Strategies for Confidence, Control, Approach Focus, and Reappraisal
The strategies for promoting a challenge state broadly fit within two themes. The first theme reflects strategies that can be adopted by coaches to create an environment in which a challenge state is more likely. The second theme reflect psychological skills that can be learned by athletes to get themselves into a challenge state.
Creating a Challenge Environment
One method by which challenge has been promoted uses instructional sets. More specifically, past research has used instructional sets to manipulate challenge and threat states. In line with theory (Blascovich & Mendes, 2000; Jones et al., 2009), challenge instructions typically emphasize the perception of high resource appraisals, and some experiments also attempt to lower the perception of demand appraisals. The use of instructional sets stems from a consistent body of research demonstrating that psychophysiological responses to stressors can be influenced by what participants are told prior to a stressful task (e.g., Allred & Smith, 1989) and that instructional sets can modify perceptions of challenge and threat (e.g., Taylor & Scogin, 1992; Hemenover & Dienstbier, 1996; Alter, Aronson, Darley, Rodriguez, & Ruble, 2010; Feinberg & Aiello, 2010).
In one study (Feinberg & Aiello, 2010), challenge instructions focused on perceiving a cognitive task “as a challenge to be met and overcome” (p. 2079), while threat instructions focused on the difficulty of the task and the importance of working “as quickly and efficiently as possible” (p. 2079). Results demonstrated that challenge appraisals and performance increments followed challenge instructions, while threat appraisals and performance decrements followed threat instructions. However, this study did not include measurements of arousal or physiological reactivity. Growing research demonstrates that challenge and threat instructions can also influence physiological markers of challenge and threat. Another study (Tomaka, Blascovich, Kibler, & Ernst, 1997) showed that participants given threat instructions about an upcoming mental arithmetic task experienced threat CV reactivity and cognitively appraised the task as threatening. Conversely, participants given challenge task instructions experienced challenge CV reactivity and cognitively appraised the task as a challenge. Importantly, challenge instructions urged participants to “think of the task as a challenge” (p. 72), while threat instructions reminded participants that the task would be “scored for speed and accuracy” (p. 72). Using similar instructions but in relation to a golf putting task, Moore et al. (2012) found that those who received challenge instructions appraised the task as a challenge, exhibited challenge CV reactivity, and they displayed more effective visual gaze, putting kinematics, and muscle activity, which aided performance in the putting task, compared to those who received threat instructions.
More recent research (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker, & Coffee, 2014) confirmed that challenge instructions only increased the perceptions of resource appraisals from the TCTSA, and threat instructions only decreased the perceptions of resource appraisals, keeping task demands the same between conditions. In other words, challenge instructions promoted high self-efficacy, high perceived control, and a focus on approach goals; threat instructions promoted low self-efficacy, low perceived control, and a focus on avoidance goals. Both sets of instructions increased perceptions of danger, uncertainty, and effort, thus maintaining perceived demands and only altering perceived resources. In two laboratory studies, a throwing across task and a climbing well task, Turner et al. (2014) found that challenge instructions led to challenge CV reactivity, whereas threat instructions led to threat CV reactivity.
The research suggesting that a challenge state can be promoted using instructional sets has important implications for how leaders manage individual and team approaches to stressors. Leaders can have an important influence on their subordinates’ responses to stressful situations (e.g., Smith, Smoll, & Weichman, 1998; Baker, Côté, & Hawes, 2000), and therefore they could use this influence to promote a challenge state. Leaders can ensure that their communications with subordinates prior to stressful situations include primers for high confidence, control, and approach goals, while retaining references to the gravity and importance of the occasion. The use of particular instructional sets can also form part of the social support offered by the leader and others within a team setting.
A significant body of research indicates that social support provides a buffer for the adverse effects of stress (e.g., Cohen & McKay, 1984; Haslam, O’Brien, Jetten, Vormedal, & Penna, 2005). Cobb (1976) suggests that psychological support reflects the provision of information (e.g., effective coping response) and therefore it is important to provide the right information to those entering stressful situations. Social support can buffer stress in many different ways, but for the purposes of this article, one important mechanism is through informational support (House, 1981). Informational support provides those in receipt with coping guidance, similar to challenge instructions, and contributes to positive appraisal by helping those in receipt clarify their understanding of threatening stimuli (e.g., Aspinwall & Taylor, 1997). Informational social support can be used to help convince an individual that they can cope with the stressor (Cohen & McKay, 1984). Therefore, information offered to individuals that promotes high perceived resources, such as the instructions used in past research (e.g., Tomaka et al., 1997; Turner et al., 2014), may help those who receive them to enter a challenge state. In addition, Rees and Hardy (2004) found that social support positively influences performance, regardless of the level of stress, and more recently, Freeman and Rees (2008) found that high levels of esteem support predicted smaller threat appraisals and greater challenge appraisals, with subsequent better golf performance. The role of social support in challenge and threat states is yet to be fully tested, and some research has found that social support has little effect on challenge and threat states (Moore, Vine, Wilson, & Freeman, 2014). However, some suggest that social support could help enhance the resource appraisals, or could actually be a resource appraisal itself (e.g., Haslam & Reicher, 2006). Coaches may play an important role in social support, and a recent study (Nichols, Levy, Jones, Meir, Radcliffe, & Perry, 2016) of athletes’ perceptions of coach behaviors found a positive association between supportive coach behaviors and challenge and unsupportive coach behaviors and threat. This finding illustrates that coaches can influence the self-reported challenge and threat states of athletes. Interestingly, in a study of soccer coaches coaching behaviors (Dixon, Turner, & Gillman, 2016) found positive associations between challenge appraisals and social support and between threat appraisals and autocratic behavior as well as a significantly negative association between threat appraisals and positive feedback. Therefore, the ways coaches appraise stressors are also important for how they behave towards their athletes.
Recently, research has identified a hormone that plays a big role in social bonding that also may influence the human stress response. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, and in low stress situations, it may physiologically reward those who maintain good social bonds with feelings of greater well-being. But when oxytocin operates in high stress situations, it may encourage people to seek out social contact. Further, oxytocin released during positive (supportive) social contact, even if this social contact is only anticipated, actually reduces the severity of the body’s stress response (Taylor, 2006). Recent research (Kubzansky, Mendes, Appleton, Block, & Adler, 2012) indicates that when people are put under social stress (e.g., public speaking), oxytocin is associated with a challenge state and a healthier recovery profile after the stress. Research also suggests that oxytocin may help to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels (Light, Smith, Johns, Brownley, Hofheimer, & Amico, 2000). In summary, when facing a stressful situation, oxytocin may help people to better deal with stress.
Part of creating a challenge environment may also involve helping individuals to adapt to stressful situations via experiential learning, which places individuals in demanding situations. Past performance accomplishments are a powerful source of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997; Feltz & Lirgg, 2001), and, as is recognized in MAT and catastrophe theory, self-efficacy plays an important role in the relationship between arousal and performance. Self-efficacy is also an important resource appraisal in the TCTSA. Therefore, helping athletes to flourish in stressful situations may provide important sources of self-efficacy for subsequence stressors. One way to achieve this experiential learning is through systematic desensitization (Wolpe, 1973). In brief, the athlete is subjected to stress regularly and systematically, thus promoting acclimatization to future stressors. This exposure to stress may foster resilience, a construct that has been put forth in relation to challenge and threat states by Seery (2011). For Seery, the exhibition of a challenge state and potential positive (or less negative) outcomes, is suggestive of resilience in motivated situations, and individuals who have a history of facing some adversity should exhibit greater resilience than those who have experienced no or high adversity. Past research offers some evidence for Seery’s notion of resilience, where repeated exposure to stressors has been shown to lead to an increase in challenge over time (Quigley, Barrett, & Weinstein, 2002). In other words, situations that become more familiar may promote a challenge appraisal and challenge CV responses due to enhanced coping perceptions (Blascovich et al., 1999; Quigley et al., 2002). Also in support of his assertions, Seery, Leo, Lupien, Kondrak, and Almonte (2013) found that relative to a history of either no adversity or nonextreme high adversity, a moderate number of adverse life events is associated with less negative responses to pain and more positive psychophysiological responses while taking a test. The precise impact of exposure on the demand and resource appraisals is not yet known, and future research should investigate exposure in line with the TCTSA.
Psychological Skills: Imagery, Reappraisal, Relaxation
Psychological skills are techniques that can be applied by individuals to regulate their own internal states such as cognitions and emotions. Two main psychological skills have emerged in literature that can promote a challenge state: reappraisal and imagery.
Reappraisal is an important strategy for regulating emotions (see Gross, 1998, for review), and two studies have examined the effects of reappraisal on challenge and threat states (i.e., Jamieson, Mendes, Blackstock, & Schmader, 2010; Jamieson, Nock, & Mendes, 2012). In Jamieson et al.’s (2010) study, prior to an exam, reappraisal condition participants were told that “recent research suggests that arousal doesn’t hurt performance” and that “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” They were also encouraged to “simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well” (p. 2). By being prompted to perceive their anxiety as helpful, participants in the reappraisal condition exhibited higher catecholamine levels, indicative of SAM activity (challenge state), perceived their anxiety as helpful, were more confident about performance and demonstrated better performance in the exam compared to a control group. Jamieson et al. (2012) similarly used a reappraisal condition to encourage participants facing a speech task that their arousal is functional and can help them to succeed. Results showed that participants in the reappraisal condition had higher perceived resources and exhibited higher increases cardiac output as well as lower increases in total peripheral resistance compared to the control group; a psychophysiologically adaptive response. In sport, after responding to a pressure task with a threat state, a reappraisal group shifted toward a challenge cardiovascular response, although this difference was not statistically significant (Moore, Vine, Wilson, & Freeman, 2015). The reappraisal group also outperformed the control group during the pressurized task. Importantly, reappraisal does not dampen arousal but aims to reshape how arousal is perceived (Jamieson et al., 2013), which contrasts with theories such as MAT and catastrophe theory, where arousal level is seen as important for performance.
Another way to promote a challenge state is through the use of imagery, a technique that involves realistically recreating or creating events in the absence of physical practice. Imagery can be used for a variety of purposes, but notably, it is effective for regulating emotions (e.g., Hecker & Kaczor, 1988), enhancing self-confidence (Callow, Hardy, & Hall, 2001), and promoting coping under stress (e.g., Vadocz, Hall, & Moritz, 1997; for reviews, see Martin, Moritz, & Hall, 1999; Cumming & Ramsey, 2008), all of which are important aspects of a challenge state. The mechanisms for how imagery works are still under debate, but nonetheless, imagery is a well-researched skill that has been shown to be valuable for motivated performance situations (Durand, Hall, & Haslam, 1997). Three studies have expressly applied imagery to enhance a challenge state (Hale & Whitehouse, 1998; Williams, Cumming, & Balanos, 2010; Williams & Cumming, 2012). Hale and Whitehouse (1998) showed that an imagery-based video and audiotaped manipulation that prompted challenge perceptions resulted in less cognitive anxiety, less somatic anxiety, more self-confidence, and perceptions that symptoms were facilitative. In Williams et al. (2010) a challenge imagery script that emphasized resources (challenge appraisals), promoted high self-efficacy, high perceived control, and potential gain led to lower threat appraisals, positive emotion perceptions, and higher confidence. Similar scripts were used by Williams and Cumming (2012) who also found that the challenge script led to challenge appraisals and the threat script led to threat appraisal and a perception that emotional responses were debilitating for performance. Imagery offers a useful way to promote a challenge state, but more research is needed to test the psychophysiological implications of effective imagery use.
Although to date no studies have explicitly explored the effect of relaxation strategies on challenge and threat states, the use of relaxation techniques may be helpful in regulating arousal and may have the potential to reduce the intensity of the felt threat state and potentially its impact on performance, whereas energizing strategies may help enhance the felt experience of a challenge state. This is because increasing or decreasing physiological arousal would appear to have a blanket effect on the intensity of an individual’s emotional state (e.g., Hohmann, 1966; Zillmann, Katcher, & Milavsky, 1972).
Relaxation techniques have been classified as muscle-to-mind techniques, which are more physical in nature (e.g., breathing techniques), or mind-to-muscle techniques (imaging being in a relaxing environment), which are more cognitive in nature (Harris, 1986). However, the autonomic nervous system and cognitive aspects of emotion are linked, illustrated in the fact that an intervention designed to reduce somatic (physical) anxiety also reduced, albeit to a lesser degree, cognitive anxiety in soccer players (Maynard, Hemmings, & Warwick-Evans, 1995) and field hockey players (Maynard & Cotton, 1993). A number of strategies have been proposed to reduce arousal (e.g., progressive muscular relaxation, centering), whereas strategies to increase arousal include up-beat music and exercise itself (Jones, 2003).
One approach that has a particular focus on arousal control in sport is biofeedback (Zaichkowsky & Fuchs, 1988). This approach is based on the principle that athletes can learn to voluntarily control their arousal levels by receiving concurrent feedback from an instrument that measures aspects of the autonomic nervous system response. The athlete can experiment with different thoughts and feelings to reduce or increase arousal. It is then anticipated that the ability to control arousal levels transfer to the athletic field. For example, a 20-year-old small-bore rifle shooter underwent an intervention comprising relaxation strategies, thought stopping and biofeedback which resulted in lower levels of urinary adrenaline and noradrenaline (physiological markers indicative of anxiety) in subsequent competitions (Prapavessis, Grove, McNair, & Cable, 1992). Biofeedback is also often used as a strategy to regulate Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is proposed to be a measure of autonomic flexibility. That is, the interplay between sympathetic and parasympathetic influences heart rate and is proposed to represent the capacity for emotional responding (Appelhans & Luecken, 2006). HRV training utilizes the link between respiration and HRV wherein breathing in accelerates heart rate and breathing out lowers heart rate. In HRV training, breathing is regulated to around 6 breaths per minute (Vaschillo, Lehrer, Rishe, & Konstantinov, 2002). Greater HRV is associated with more positive emotional response to stressors (e.g., Bornas et al., 2005) and both performance of stressful tasks (e.g., Hansen et al., 2003); there is also some support for the application of HRV training in sport (e.g., Maman & Kanupriya, 2012), although more research is needed.
The area of arousal control in sport has moved through initial simplistic theories of arousal toward more complex psychophysiological explanations for the relationship between arousal and performance. More current theory suggests that arousal control is less about arousal magnitude or severity and more about the underlying endocronological processes that regulate arousal. Also, the notion that the perception of arousal symptoms may provide a stronger link to performance has garnered much support. Regardless of the decades of theoretical debate already present in this area, arousal control is a topic that will continue to be examined and discussed, particularly as advancements are made in how psychophysiological reactivity is measure at a biochemical and neurological level. For example, one approach that has received little research in sport is the role of Neuropeptide Y (NPY). NPY has been consistently associated with a positive response under stress, and this has been demonstrated in military settings, including special forces personnel in the United States (Morgan, Wang, Southwick, Rasmousson, Hazlett, Hauger, & Charney, 2000). NPY is a 36-amino-acid peptide, and receptors for NPY in the brain are similar (i.e., amygdala, hippocampus, locus coeruleus) to those of ACTH, which ultimately stimulates the release of cortisol. Furthermore, NPY and ACTH have counterbalancing functional effects; thus, NPY may, in effect, attenuate the stress response (Nulk, Schuh, Burrell, & Matthews, 2011).
Theoretical developments have also yielded advances in strategies to help performers regulate arousal; the ability to perform under pressure id still considered a fundamental aspect of athletic success. Arousal control is not only about being relaxed, it is also about recognizing the optimum state for performance and finding methods by which to arrive at that state. This idea is perhaps best summed up by Lewis Moody (retired England Rugby Union World Cup winner):
“Before you play, you have to get yourself in the right frame of mind. If you’re not mentally right, you won’t be able to produce your best. Everyone’s different though—you have to do what works for you. Some guys run around shouting and screaming whereas others prefer to chill out” (Moody, 2005).
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